Almost a third of all fighters aligned with armed groups in strife-torn Yemen are children, a U.N. official said Thursday, with conflict also worsening the plight of young people via increasing malnutrition levels and an expected slump in education.
“We are seeing children in battle, at checkpoints and unfortunately among (those) killed and injured,” Julien Harneis, UNICEF's representative in Yemen, said during a stop in Geneva.
Staff at the United Nations children's agency and its partners estimate that around 30 percent of fighters in the armed groups were minors, he said.
In Yemen, it is has been common in recent years for boys to take up arms at ages as young as 14, lured by money and, in many cases, a sense of purpose.
Saudi Arabia, in coordination with a number of Arab Sunni-majority states, began launching airstrikes in Yemen last week in an attempt to rollback territorial gains by Shia rebels it says are backed by Iran.
The rebels, called Houthis, have twice displaced Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi — first from the capital Sanaa, which they overran in September, and then from the southern port city of Aden, which they are currently attempting to seize.
Even when they are not on the front lines in the conflict, children are particularly vulnerable to the spiraling violence, Harneis said.
UNICEF has confirmed that 77 children have been killed and 44 others injured since March 26, he said, adding though that the true toll was likely far higher. “There are children dying in bombings in the north ... and by very intense battles in Aden and Daleh. All of the parties to the conflict are to blame.”
In addition to the violence, already high malnutrition levels in Yemen are expected to soar.
“We are going to see a spike in malnutrition in coming weeks. Unfortunately, that is something we are sure of,” Harneis said.
“Difficulties in accessing water, rising prices for supplies, the difficulty to move around the country ... All of this combined with cuts in state-run services (means) we will again see ... hikes in malnutrition,” he warned.
Lacking access to food could be catastrophic in Yemen, where chronic malnutrition levels last year already stood at a staggering 48 percent — among the highest in the world, Harneis said.
The conflict is also likely to result in a decline in the number of children attending school in a country where between 1 million and 1.5 million school-aged children are already not receiving an education.
In light of the desperate situation, UNICEF is hoping to send medical supplies, drinking water and hygiene products to Sanaa “today,” Harneis said. But the relief mission has so far been delayed by having to seek clearance from the Saudi-led coalition bombing the country.
If the U.N. agency manages to get a plane into the country, it would be the first flight to Sanaa carrying aid supplies since the latest round of hostilities began.
Harneis said he was in Geneva to tell diplomats what he and his colleagues are seeing on the ground, “in the hope the states will use this information to reduce the impact of the conflict on children.”
Al Jazeera and Agence-France Presse